Students are changing the world because they read.

On a cold day in February, I started class the way I always seem to do these days: with a themed book talk. I included a variety of genres and forms in this collection of books that centers around the big idea of poverty: YA, nonfiction, written in verse, novel, and memoir to name a few.poverty

Included in this collection was Banker to the Poor, a memoir about the birth of microcredit and microlending.

Below an excerpt from the official Banker to the Poor website which I think helps explain what a microloan is and how the idea came to be:

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One of my grade eleven girls quickly keyed in on this particular title, which came as no surprise. She has been a nonfiction-junkie this year, and the topic is right up her alley.

Time passed, we periodically conferred about her book, and then something happened.

Last week she insisted that she confer with me first, before any other students. She announced to me, “Mrs. Swinehart! I have big news that I think you’ll want to know about!”

She was right.

She went on to explain that she had received some money as a gift for her recent birthday.  Her big news was that because she was inspired by the book she was reading, she would use some of her birthday money to help fund a microloan.

What an empowering connection between the real world and the text she was reading.

Talk about proud teacher moment.

What if she hadn’t had the freedom of choice in her reading life? If she had been in a class that required her to read a shared text – perhaps a classic like The Scarlet Letter, which I’ve taught several times and has always been one of my favorites – but in a class that didn’t offer her choice? Or if the whole class had been required to read her choice of text? The magic would have been gone. Continue reading “Students are changing the world because they read.”

Virtual Travel with Authors- Creating a Reading Community with a Short Research Project

It’s not easy to come up with a short, creative, engaging research prompt that every student is interested in responding to, given that they are all reading different books (save for the three eleventh grade girls who chose to read The Kite Runner together).

It’s important to assign tasks that challenge students who are often looking to take things to the nth level, but that will also provide an opportunity for scaffolding and success with the students who sometimes struggle with research, reading, and writing assignments.

That’s why, when I saw this article about literary journeys on CNN.com today, I realized that I had found some virtual classroom gold.

The travel article 23 literary journeys with the world’s great writers is a list. It’s a list of authors, books, places, and potential adventures. And it’s the perfect mentor text for an in-class, community-building, short-and-sweet piece of mini-research writing.

Continue reading “Virtual Travel with Authors- Creating a Reading Community with a Short Research Project”

Team Debate as a Pre-Writing Activity

I spent most of my weekend with over 200 middle and high school students at the World Scholar’s Cup Amman Round. It’s a fun event that has students participate in trivia and academic knowledge quizzes, a team writing competition, and a team debate competition.

There was a talent show after the competitive events and before the awards ceremony, when they gave out more medals and trophies than I ever thought was possible. You can imagine the energy was loud and high.

I accompanied five smarty-pants high school boys. It was a first for me and the students; I had read about it online, but had never experienced what it looks and feels like in an up-close and personal way.

I love that all of these students were so enthused about writing and debating that they spent most of their weekend (it went until 11pm on Thursday and all day Friday) competing individually and as teams.

The boys found success in different ways and in different events, and look forward to competing again. They all agreed that the team debate competition was fun and different from what they had done before, and that their anxiety level was raised just enough to keep them interested but not terrified.

Perfect.

So let me bring it around to teaching with the workshop model. Yes, the students were writing and debating this weekend and that’s not new or news. But the writing and the debating were especially cool because they were doing some heavy-duty thinking, and they were thinking and communicating as teams.

Here’s how the team debate works:

Students are split into teams of three. Teams are randomly assigned either the affirmative or negative side. Then they are given the motion, at which point they have 15 minutes to prepare. After the preparation is complete, each team member is given four minutes to argue his point, and the teams alternate back and forth. It’s a lovely example of respectful dialogue and persuasive speaking.

After the debate, before the winning team is announced, students are required to provide feedback to the opposing team. I love this part!

As judges, we were given scoring criteria and a script, so adjudicating was a simple task, and I was able to pay attention to what they students thought about some hypothetical situations, like whether or not Jordan should send a manned mission to Mars. With a topic like that, students had to look up some real-world information, process, synthesize, and argue their points in a very finite period of time. It was an opportunity for students to demonstrate their thinking and practice some organized speaking and listening.

I think this activity has a ton of potential, because I can modify the team debate event for classroom use, and then have a window into some complex student thinking.

I can see it used with some topics that are relevant to what students have been studying recently.

For instance, eleventh grade students can debate whether they think transcendentalism is still relevant in the 21st century. They have a depth of knowledge about the topic that they didn’t have before we started studying it together, and this would be an authentic way to assign group work while still being able to see the individual students’ skill and thought process.

Continue reading “Team Debate as a Pre-Writing Activity”

A Healthy Reading Life for All

It occurred to me that maybe my students don’t really understand why we talk about books all of the time, or what it looks like to be a mature reader. That while I’ve focused on the fact that they should read, set goals, and have a next reads list, maybe we haven’t discussed what all of those pieces add up to be. That all of our goals, conferences, independent reading time, and book talks should help support, encourage, and result in each student having a healthy reading life.

So we talked about it.

Last week, the grade nines brainstormed answers to the question What does a healthy reading life look like?

 

 

They came up with what I think is a well-rounded picture of what a mature reader does.

They recognized that a healthy reader should be able to pick out a book independently, but also ask for and welcome recommendations from others.

They noticed that a mature reader should put in effort, but enjoy the process.

They talked about setting aside time to read, or making a plan, but also reading in a more impromptu setting as well.

They realized that it’s important to be able to have thoughtful discourse about a book, but also to form their own opinions and not automatically agree with the author or other readers and reviewers.

These grade nines had insightful ideas about what it means to be a healthy reader. Continue reading “A Healthy Reading Life for All”

Anchor Charts aren’t just for Elementary School Classrooms

When I first started practicing with the reader’s workshop model in my classroom, I didn’t know what an anchor chart was.

The posters in my room were :

  • a large landscape of an unnamed beach in Thailand
  • a series on how to cite sources using proper MLA formatting
  • a poster of Van Gogh’s Almond Blossom
  • an old advertisement for A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • a world map

Okay, as an overseas teacher, it’s understandable that I didn’t pack up posters that were on my walls when I taught public school, and bring them with me to Jordan. (In the weeks before I packed up and moved out of my old classroom, I gave many of those beloved posters away to students – and anyway, they weren’t anchor charts.) But I was starting my third year in this same classroom, and I should have had at least a plan to have something better than other teachers’ cast-offs on my walls.

I won’t beat myself up though; teaching is a process, and I’m still learning how to do it. Once I stop learning about teaching and learning, I might as well be done. Because I’ll never be “there.”

But I digress.

I did in fact learn about anchor charts this fall, and was immediately skeptical.

I didn’t understand how I could take an elementary idea and transfer it to high school. I know, I know, I’ve used that excuse for different initiatives my whole career. Haven’t we all? We see an example of student work that comes from a level that we don’t teach, and we immediately dismiss it and find excuses for why it won’t work instead of figuring out how and why it should work. I tell my students Don’t tell me what you can’t do, tell me what you can do all the time – perhaps it’s time to heed my own advice.

I really didn’t see how I could make an anchor chart with one class and make it meaningful for all of the students who are in my room throughout the day. There just aren’t enough walls.

But then I started thinking about how all of my classes, regardless of the grade level, have made some commitments. And I made my first anchor chart, pictured below:

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  • Read at least two hours per week.
  • Read to understand.
  • Choose a book you want to read.
  • Have a “books I want to read next” list.
  • Drop books you don’t like.
  • Save books for later.

This one is right by my classroom library, and I point to it all the time – I tend to go to the third and fifth bullet point the most – sometimes students forget that if they don’t want to read a book, they don’t have to. That they really should have some excitement about the book they are reading, and it’s okay to drop a book when it feels like a chore instead of pleasure. Continue reading “Anchor Charts aren’t just for Elementary School Classrooms”

New Genre, New Learning

I have a student who is a reluctant conferrer. You’ve probably got one, too.

This student is a reader. A big reader. Like the kind of reader who reads 50+ books in a semester.

But up until this week, this student has been reluctant to talk about them, at least to me.

I think it’s my fault.

I’ve been expecting my student to meet me where I am.

One of the ways I thought I was a 21st century teacher was that I ask my students to respond to literature on Blogger instead of in a notebook.  But how can responding on Blogger be a better learning experience than in Google Docs or in regular reader’s notebooks? (I’ll think on that and try to up my game… more later. There must be an answer.) There’s more to being a 21st century teacher than using technology.

 

Let me get back to those 50+ books. I’ve never seen this student with an actual paper bound book in hand; it’s always the Kindle.

As a new-to-workshop teacher, I didn’t realize that the Kindle was one obstacle between me and a successful conference with a student. I guess it’s because it’s not intuitive to me — it’s easy to flip through pages in a book, but it feels intrusive to start swiping through someone’s device.

I’ll try to push through that now that I’m more aware of it. It might bring me closer to being a 21st century teacher.

Last week, I sat down next to this reluctant interactor and started asking some questions. Again.

This time, my student shared a little more than normal.

This student talked about litRPG.

What is that? I asked. Continue reading “New Genre, New Learning”

Using Conroy’s My Reading Life as Mentor Text

 

At the end of first semester, I asked students to write about how their reading lives had changed. We’d been doing workshop for a few months, I’d seen some growth and some good habits forming in many of them, and I really wanted them to recognize that they were better readers than they had been at the beginning of the school year.

I asked them to reflect on their reading lives, using an excerpt from Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life as mentor text. (I think this is one of the best mentor texts out there, so we have ordered enough copies for each teacher in our department as well as several for our classroom libraries. My colleagues are probably sick and tired of hearing about this book, but I feel strongly about it. It’s a great read and an amazing mentor text, all the way through.)

I gave the students this short excerpt from chapter one: Continue reading “Using Conroy’s My Reading Life as Mentor Text”

Book Talks When the Teacher is Out

An inevitable reality of teaching is that sometimes the teacher has to be absent. It’s part of life, so I refuse to feel guilty about it.

Mostly.

When I can plan ahead for my absences, I ensure that students are working on something which puts learning at the forefront, rather than having a “let’s take advantage of this poor substitute teacher” situation. That eases the guilt a bit.

Next month, I will attend the Adolescent Literacy Summit and I’m super-excited to learn from some amazing presenters. However, I’ll be missing three days of classes, and I want my students to be doing something worth-while and that helps them move forward with the development of their reading lives.

I’ve planned countless lessons over the years, so I’m not worried about the “lesson” part of the classes that I’ll be missing.

But this book talk habit is a new one.

It’s harder to plan for when I’m not there.

And book talks are an essential part of readers workshop. Kids need to get excited about new books every day!

That’s the situation I’m facing, and I’m exploring some solutions. Continue reading “Book Talks When the Teacher is Out”

Themed Book Talks: Offering Challenge and Choice

“I’d like to talk to you about some books.”

That’s how I start nearly every class period. My students are ready with their own independent reading books, and their phones are usually on their desks, which is what I want. They’ve got their next reads list in the notes app, and they are ready to add some new titles to the lists. They just need some inspiration!

I’ve tried a few different ways to introduce students to books, and there are all sorts of strategies that work. I’ll describe the one I’m currently using; students are enjoying it, and I am getting titles in front of them en masse.

I’ve explained in previous posts that my students set some second semester goals by drawing randomly themed cards out of a bag. The themes offer challenge and choice, and generally serve to expand their comfort zones.

I’ve started drawing cards out of the bag, too, and those cards are now shaping my themed book talks.img_7298

Today’s book talk theme was nutrition. Included in our grouping: a multicultural cookbook, some nonfiction about the Irish potato famine (also counts for the immigration card), Eating Animals by Jonathan Safron Foer, the Neil Flambe series, Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, a quirky graphic novel titled Chew by John Layman, and Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley. By the end of the day my students had added more titles: Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood by Julie Gregory, and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson to name a couple. Continue reading “Themed Book Talks: Offering Challenge and Choice”

Book Talks Make a Difference

Yes, students want choice. They don’t want to read our favorite books – they want to discover their own favorites. But many high schoolers are out of practice and don’t know how to choose a book. That’s where the book talk comes in.

The teacher has to lead the way. Even if you are unsure about this whole workshop approach. Even if you haven’t read any young adult fiction lately. You can read the back of the book out loud. Or you can read the first few lines of the first chapter. Sometimes that’s all it takes. And you might find a book you want to read, too!

Start every class with a book talk and silent reading. Flip the order around from day to day if you want to, but start with these two things. Students should know that they need their independent reading books and their next reads lists. At the end of each book talk, remind students to add the title(s) to their lists if any of the books seem interesting to them.

I can share part of my workshop story here. At the beginning of the school year, I didn’t even know what Readers Workshop was. But I agreed to try it out.

I (naively? hesitantly?) started giving all of the book talks, but eventually the students wanted to join in.

That’s when the momentum really picked up. 

 And, they got to choose their own due dates. They love that. 

Here’s how it worked: with a google spreadsheet, students signed up for a weekly due date that was sometime during the semester. During the week of their book talk, they would arrive to school on a Sunday morning, and in theory, were prepared to present the book talk first thing, or any other day that I might call on them during the week. About five students signed up for each week, so I would have anywhere between one and three students book-talking in any given class. 

Here’s an example of the spread sheet the students had access to. If they changed their minds or presented on a different book, it was okay. But, as with all things, the teacher gets to set the boundaries in which the students have choice. Continue reading “Book Talks Make a Difference”